Mayor who battled to save city defends Ukraine's NATO and EU bids
Oleksandr Sienkevych, the smartly dressed former New Jersey tech entrepreneur turned mayor of the frontline city of Mykolaiv, has no time for Western doubts about Ukraine's EU and NATO ambitions.
This week he was in Brussels to lobby Western experts and policymakers to support Ukraine's battle to defeat the Russian invader and rebuild the country, including his battered city.
"I know that it sounds awful, but we view this war as a chance to become better," he told AFP after appearing at a German Marshall Fund think tank forum in Brussels.
"We want to, let's say, to finalise a lot of things that happened before the war, like the ability to be a part of NATO and the European Union."
There is a lot of goodwill towards Kyiv in Brussels and Washington, but some doubts are building even among Ukraine's friends about how quickly it can be absorbed into the Western clubs.
When will Ukraine's long-awaited spring offensive begin? Will it make quick progress and justify the shipment of billions of dollars in US and European weaponry to Kyiv?
Will Ukraine, with its reputation for corruption and political instability, really carry out the necessary reforms before pushing for European Union membership?
Sienkevych dismisses such doubts.
Ukrainians are putting their own lives on the line to win the war and defend Europe's eastern border, he says. Anti-corruption measures are being put in place.
Once the fighting is over, he says, the West must be ready to integrate Ukraine quickly into both the European Union and the NATO alliance.
And he tells the story of his own town, the southern port and ship-building city of Mykolaiv, to support his case.
When Russian forces poured out of already-occupied Crimea in February and March last year they attempted to seize Ukraine's Black Sea ports.
As they headed west towards Odessa, Mykolaiv and its hastily organised defence stood in their way. Battle erupted and the city was shelled and bombed for 219 days.
- Corruption doubts -
According to the mayor, 159 people were killed and around 1,000 injured. Forty-five percent of the city's public buildings -- schools and clinics -- were destroyed.
Russian forces have now been driven back from Mykolaiv and back across the wide Dnipro river, south of Kherson, and Sienkevych's administration is picking up the pieces.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, will present advice to EU member state leaders next month on Ukraine's progress towards EU membership talks.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has been clear that he wants formal EU membership negotiations to begin this year, despite the ongoing conflict.
NATO leaders, meanwhile, will meet at a Vilnius summit in July to debate how explicit and clear a timetable they can put on Kyiv's bid to join the alliance.
Public statements are uniformly very supportive but, as the fighting grinds on, nagging doubts can be heard in the corridors of Washington and Brussels.
On Friday, Dereck Hogan, the top US diplomat for Europe, indicated that the United States was in no rush to make formal promises to Ukraine.
And in Brussels, diplomats from EU capitals do not all share von der Leyen's confidence that the bloc can quickly absorb a war-ravaged country of more than 40 million people.
Preferential trading arrangements put in place to support Kyiv's economy have already raised the hackles of European farmers as cheap Ukrainian grain floods their markets.
And isn't Ukraine notoriously corrupt?
Sienkevych has no truck with that, arguing that Russia spent millions of dollars pushing propaganda designed to smear Ukraine and destroy its EU hopes.
Having built an IT business in the United States, the mayor puts his faith in the digitalisation of the Ukrainian economy to expose what graft remains.
"I don't believe in people, because people, you know, are not saints, and people have temptations. So they usually choose the easy way," he said.
"So I believe in systems, and these digital creations."
- 'Paying with their lives' -
And what of the long-awaited spring offensive? When will Ukraine finally bring its Western-supplied tanks and missiles to bear and decisively defeat the invader?
Wouldn't Western governments and taxpayers be happier to maintain support if Ukraine's defence forces could show more forward momentum?
Here Sienkevych is firm. The West must not push Kyiv to act before it is ready, because Ukraine stands to lose something far more valuable than refurbished Leopard tanks.
"It's our troops," he said, complaining that some in the West seem to see the war as a Hollywood movie and are eagerly awaiting the scripted happy ending.
"So we can get another rocket that can be produced in Europe or the United States. We can get more tanks that can be produced everywhere, but we can't produce any more Ukrainians."